Dan Morain

Don’t mess with Munger’s baby

Charles T. Munger Jr. poured millions of dollars of his own money to support state ballot measures that took control over drawing legislative district lines for California’s congressional delegation away from state legislators and give it to a citizens commission.
Charles T. Munger Jr. poured millions of dollars of his own money to support state ballot measures that took control over drawing legislative district lines for California’s congressional delegation away from state legislators and give it to a citizens commission. The Bay Citizen file

Charles Munger Jr. is ready to pounce, not that he wants to, necessarily.

As soon as Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will issue a decision that, if it turns out as Munger fears, could lead to the demise of his creation, a voter-approved independent commission that draws district lines for California’s 53 members of Congress.

No one who wants reasonably fair and honest politics should wish for that unhappy outcome. But Munger is preparing for the worst, and that includes making clear to politicians he will spend whatever he must to protect his baby.

“I’m not going to take any prisoners. I’m not going to be gentle about it,” Munger said.

Munger wears bow ties, is slight of build, understated, and a physicist who has a desk at the Stanford Linear Accelerator, an incongruous profession for a political heavyweight. His namesake is Warren Buffett’s billionaire partner. Without saying what he’s worth, Munger notes that at most, his father’s fortune has been estimated at $2 billion, and Dad has eight children.

Whatever the size of the younger Munger’s portfolio, it’s enough to permit him to spend $74.2 million on California politics since 2005, including $9.4 million for the California Republican Party and Republican county committees since 2011.

He has sought to be a moderating force, funding efforts to elect minority Republicans and soften the GOP stand on gay rights, and is a self-described zealot on the topic of redistricting. It’s an unlikely topic to get worked up about. But as he sees it, all decisions flow from the nature of districts, and the point is well-taken.

If districts are bent by politicians intent on protecting their jobs, occupants of safe seats will be less accountable. Certainly, voter apathy is rooted in the notion that voting doesn’t matter.

Munger’s solution: empower an independent commission to draw lines that, while not perfect, will not shield incumbents from challenges. It works. Of the 435 congressional seats, perhaps 40 are competitive. California, which has 53 seats, has 10 seats that could swing to Republicans or Democrats. Competition forces politicians to be responsive to voters, and maybe a little less beholden to insiders.

All that is threatened by the Supreme Court. The case placing Munger on high alert is Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. The decision will apply to congressional boundaries, not state legislative or local districts. But the outcome could have lasting impact on the political class in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

Voters in Arizona approved a redistricting commission in 2000. Thanks largely to Munger’s money and vision, Californians did the same by approving initiatives in 2008 and 2010.

The Arizona Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans, sued, claiming that the Constitution requires legislatures, not unelected members of commissions, to draw congressional districts. The California Legislature didn’t join the case, but the National Conference of State Legislatures, to which California belongs, filed a brief supporting the Arizona Legislature.

Munger traveled to Washington to listen to oral arguments in March, and came away disquieted. Conservative justices grilled lawyers representing the Arizona redistricting commission. Liberals seemed sympathetic toward the electorate’s right to seize redistricting authority from legislatures.

The case will turn on the meaning of “legislature” in the elections clause of the U.S. Constitution: “times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.” That clause was, of course, written before the Progressive Era and advent of direct democracy, but surely the nation’s founders would have embraced the power of voters to use initiatives to make their own laws.

If the Arizona Legislature wins, someone will sue to invalidate the California commission, and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Speaker Toni Atkins will face pressure to tinker with congressional lines. That’s where Munger would draw the line.

Democrats, wanting to regain Congress, could cause mischief. Imagine House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of Bakersfield, running against fellow Republicans David Valadao of Hanford or Devin Nunes of Tulare, or Tom McClintock of Elk Grove and Jeff Denham of Turlock squaring off.

It’d be great sport for political junkies. Democrats could pick up a seat or more. People like me would have plenty to write about. But it wouldn’t make for particularly good government.

Munger hopes that if the court rules against him, the Legislature will adopt the Citizens Redistricting Commission’s maps. That’d be wise. Just in case, Munger has retained the consulting firm Redwood Pacific Public Affairs and the law firm, Nielsen Merksamer. If the Legislature alters the maps, he could fund a referendum. He also envisions campaigns against legislators who would mess with lines, and maybe recall them.

“You will not get away with this,” he said as if addressing legislators. “The consequences will not be worth it.”

Gov. Jerry Brown could put a stop to any hijinks, and should. He wants to focus on high-speed rail, the water delivery system, limiting state spending and being a warrior against climate change. Becoming the Jerry in gerrymander would be a diversion.

We are taught in civics classes that we give our consent to be governed. It seems obvious that we who elect legislators have the right to approve initiatives that reclaim part of legislators’ power, especially given how they’ve used redistricting for their selfish ends over the decades. But civics lessons and real politics aren’t the same. Nor would be the law, as interpreted by this Supreme Court, if Munger’s fears are realized.